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Agencies investigating Northwest Baltimore gas explosion, but answers could take awhile

In the immediate aftermath of a major gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore, hundreds of rescue workers sifted through rubble looking for survivors.

Next will come the potentially drawn-out process of determining what exactly triggered the blast, which leveled three homes, killing two people and seriously injuring at least seven others.

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“With these investigations, it could take months, if not longer,” said Jason Stanek, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission. “Right now, our thoughts are with residents of Labyrinth Road.”

Fire Chief Roman Clark said at a Monday afternoon news conference that the site is “still a rescue mission.”

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But mixed in with the first responders were representatives from several agencies who will work to determine what caused the explosion. Investigators from the state’s Public Service Commission, which is charged with regulating utility companies, were there alongside federal and local inspectors.

“Our staff and federal agents, along with city officials, will be working throughout the night to determine the cause,” Stanek said Monday evening. “We hope to be in a better position to have more information tomorrow.”

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. released a statement saying that it would begin investigating company equipment in the area once the fire rescue is over. Company officials will inspect gas mains, service pipes and gas meters. Customer-owned appliances and piping will also be investigated.

Late Monday night, BGE said crews continue to inspect area gas lines, but that no leaks had been found. Tracing such leaks can be a difficult task.

The company’s records indicate that the neighborhood’s gas infrastructure was installed in the early 1960s and that BGE didn’t receive recent gas odor calls from the block of damaged homes, according to the statement.

The company said its most recent inspection of the gas lines in the area were in June and July of 2019, and crews did not identify leaks.

“This is an active investigation and we cannot speculate on the possible causes,” the statement read.

Recent high-profile explosions in Maryland have taken months, or years, to investigate.

A natural gas explosion partially leveled a Columbia shopping center in August 2019. The Public Service Commission staff’s report was only made public late Monday.

It found that BGE’s “gas and electric facilities involved in the accident did not conform to the minimum safety standard.” The report states that an “electrical fault appears to have melted holes into the gas service causing a gas leak.”

A joint investigation with BGE is ongoing. Investigators wrote that “currently almost a year after the accident, BGE is unable to provide a more detailed root cause analysis of what triggered the event or accurately estimate a date of completion at this time.”

Exactly four years before Monday’s explosion in Baltimore, a Silver Spring apartment complex partially collapsed, killing seven people. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the gas explosion took three years to publish.

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Rich Langford, Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 President, said while it’s vital that investigators get their report right, it’s also important to make a determination as quickly as possible so steps could be put in place to prevent similar disasters.

And while the cause of the blast is not immediately clear, he and other firefighters have long expressed concern about the city’s aging gas infrastructure.

About one-third of BGE’s gas distribution mains, one-quarter of its gas services and half of its transmission mains are older than 50 years, the company’s vice president for gas distribution, Chris Burton, told the Public Service Commission in May. Roughly 15% of its massive gas distribution system is made of “outmoded materials.”

Last year alone, data shows, BGE workers performed more than 8,600 gas leak repairs.

The number of such leaks increased by 75% from 2009 to 2016 — amid what officials called a “dramatic” increase in the failure of pipe joints dating from the 1950s and 1960s.

Property records suggest the two-story, 1,000-square-foot rowhomes in the neighborhood affected by Monday’s blast date to around 1960.

Langford said it’s too early to say if the city’s “old and decaying” infrastructure played any part in the explosion.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance and Christine Condon contributed to this article.

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